BY WILLIAM PETROSKI AND LEE ROOD • BPETROSKI@DMREG.COM • OCTOBER 30, 2009
Winterset, Ia. – An 80-year-old man who faced spending the last years of his life behind bars for the hit-and-run death of a bicyclist this summer died Friday of an apparent suicide. The body of Paul “Jud” McKinney, who was facing felony charges stemming from the August incident near Cumming, was found Friday morning at his home in Winterset, authorities confirmed.
Police chief Ken Burk said police and emergency personnel responded to an alarm at McKinney’s home at 9:16 a.m. and found an older man’s body in a car that had been parked in the garage. The body was transported to the state medical examiner’s office in Ankeny for autopsy. McKinney, who suffered from macular degeneration, a deterioration of his eyesight, was scheduled to attend a pre-trial court hearing Nov. 17. He faced charges of leaving the scene of an accident, obstruction of prosecution by destruction of evidence and failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle in connection with the death of Mark Grgurich, 54, on Aug. 30 in Warren County.
The case was being investigated as a possible carbon monoxide poisoning, Burk said. He declined to say if police found a suicide note.
McKinney had been living alone. A Winterset resident for most of his life, he cared for his wife, Betty, who has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a nursing home.
Since the accident, he had become a virtual recluse and wouldn’t acknowledge some people who would greet him, local residents said.
Trenton Hood, a ninth grader at Winterset High School who had known McKinney, said today he felt sad at hearing of his neighbor’s death. He said he suspected that everything that had happened to McKinney had been overwhelming.
“It would be too hard on anybody,” Hood said. He added he especially felt sad for McKinney’s great-grandaughter who attends his school.
McKinney was released from jail in September. Police said a surveillance photograph of the truck McKinney allegedly was driving at the time of the accident helped identify him as a suspect.
Both an Iowa Department of Transportation official and McKinney’s sister said McKinney had vision problems, including being unable to see out of his left eye.
Terry Wright, McKinney’s attorney, told the Register in September that McKinney was a “good neighbor and hard-working man.” Wright said he thought McKinney was being punished for an act that could have happened to anyone. “He’s not a threat to the public,” Wright said in the September interview.
Wright said today, “The whole thing is just tragic; all the way around.”
Elsie Manning, McKinney’s 86-year-old sister, also told the Register in September her brother no longer drove at night when the accident occurred.
“He told me his eyes were getting worse. I don’t know why his eye doctor didn’t tell him to stop driving.” Because of the vision problems in his left eye, the state required McKinney to have a left outside rearview mirror on any vehicle he drove.
When last tested by the state, McKinney had 20/40 vision in his right eye – good enough to be allowed to drive.
McKinney worked 30 years as a truck foreman for the Madison County secondary road department.
Online court records show that McKinney’s previous traffic violations include speeding in 1998, failing to secure a child in 2001 and operating without registration in April of this year.
Police were still on the scene late this morning . Burk declined to say if there was a suicide note.
Case Raised Issue Of Older Drivers
The high-profile death raised the issue of older-driver safety this summer.
Iowa ranks fifth nationally in its population of people age 65 and over. The percentage of these older Iowans is projected to increase from almost 15 percent now to 22 percent of Iowa’s population by 2030, state officials said.
In 54 of Iowa’s 99 counties, at least 20 percent of the licensed drivers are already in the 65-plus age group, DOT officials said. Drivers ages 85, 75 and 65, respectively, represent Iowa’s fastest, second-fastest and third-fastest-growing groups of drivers.
When compared with other states, Iowa has tended to take a middle-ground approach to requirements for older drivers.
Starting at age 70, Iowans must renew their licenses every two years, instead of every five years. All renewals are done in person, and a vision screening is required. Iowa doesn’t require a road test for older drivers or require them to be checked by doctors to determine their medical fitness, but such exams can be requested if there is reason to believe they’re warranted, said Kim Snook, director of the Iowa DOT’s Office of Driver Services.
Simply requiring older people to appear in person for license renewals – as opposed to renewing by mail or electronic methods – is linked to significantly lower fatality rates among the oldest drivers, according to study results reported in 2004 by the Journal of the American Medical Association.